Can Giga-Pets Improve Student Engagement?

Can Giga-Pets Improve Student Engagement?

Walk into 100 different classrooms and you might encounter 100 different techniques for encouraging students to go the extra mile. The motivational boost once provided by a sticker or gold star now comes from a bevy of prizes, classroom privileges and tangible forms of recognition. (Badges!)

Despite the array of options, in most of these instances the motivational mechanism feels relatively archaic. The student does something, and in return there is a finite consequence based on the resources available to the teacher.

Going forward, it’s worth considering whether technology can enable new solutions that provide a more comprehensive motivational experience. For example, can technology increase the subjective value of the rewards available to students? Is it possible for these new rewards to induce students to think about their learning in a positive way?

One interesting idea comes from a project led by Zhi-Hong Chen of Yuan Ze University in Taiwan. Chen wanted to make use of “educational agents,” or computer characters that help students learn. Rather than simply have an agent assist students with an activity, Chen took a page from the late 90’s Gigapet craze (best exemplified by the Tamogotchi) and gave students control over an online virtual pet. The more effort students put into their learning, the stronger their pet grew. The pets would later compete, and the looming competition provided the incentive for students to maximize their academic efforts.

The theory behind the project is that having a surrogate helps mitigate some of the social comparison inherent in classroom learning. If a surrogate does poorly, it may feel less hurtful than direct academic failure. In addition, surrogate competition adds a layer of variance into the outcome--n Chen’s “edu-pet” competitions the outcome was based on pet strength and a random variable--so students who struggle are likely to experience some degree of success. Finally, on a more basic level, students in a classroom may be more motivated by a competition that’s less ostensibly academic.

The idea sounds neat, but does it actually work? In a new study published in Computers & Education, Chen argues that the answer is yes. He compared three groups of Taiwanese students who all studied the same lesson on Chinese idioms. One group had a virtual pet that engaged in competition, while a second group had a virtual pet but knew they wouldn’t engage in competition. A third group, which functioned as a control, used only the instructional materials. Student learning was measured with pre- and post-tests, and student motivation was measured with a series of questionnaires.

Chen found that students in the competition condition showed more improvement than students in the other two groups. Interestingly, the results suggest that merely having a pet did not lead to more learning--students also needed the prospect of competition. The questionnaire results also suggest that the edu-pet system had a positive impact. Students in both of the edu-pet conditions reported more enjoyment than students in the control condition, and students in the competition condition reported feeling more challenged and having a better understanding of their goals than students in the control condition.

In a second, similar study, Chen dug deeper into why competition may be effective. Specifically, he surveyed students on what factors--effort, luck, etc.--they believed were responsible for their competitive result. Though the study lacked proper controls, students tended to identify effort as the most important factor, and Chen believes the results provide some initial evidence that surrogate competition “may successfully alter students’ attribution of their competition outcomes toward the effort made.” Even small changes in such beliefs can have a big effect, as psychology research has repeatedly shown the importance of believing that effort, rather than luck or ability, is key.

None of this is to say that competitive agents will help every child. There has been a lot of research done on extrinsic motivation, and the results are at best, mixed. For example, while there is some evidence that an external rewards like cash can lead to desired academic outcomes, there are also numerous studies (PDF) that show such rewards can decrease intrinsic motivation. And so even if some students respond to external incentives, the jury is still out on whether large scale interventions involving such incentives are worthwhile.

In that sense, Chen’s edu-pets serve as a reminder of how long it can take for technology to make an impact. Despite their promise, the hit-or-miss nature of new motivational tools means that their influence may only be felt once we have better methods of targeting different students with different types of activities.

Still, it seems that technology will rapidly enable a more powerful set of classroom incentives. Technology allows teachers to create new forms of capital--edu-pet strength, for example--that can be disbursed as a reward for academic achievement, and the motivation such rewards produce may have additional positive qualities.

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